As the summer crops wither away with cooler temperatures, I pull them out, and without any other preparation, plant the winter vegetables in their place. Remember all that mulch I had been harping on all summer? Some of it invariably gets into the hole where there new plant is placed and that is the extent of my ‘digging in.’ You’ve seen all those garden books telling you to spade this and dig that. I break into a sweat and my back begins to hurt just reading about all that work. Here’s an experienced gardener’s little secret: let a little bit of that mulch fall in each time you plant and call it done! Certainly a lot easier than double digging.
All summer long, underneath the mulch I insisted you put around your plants, earthworms have been very busy pulling bits of it deep into your garden’s soil without your supervision! It may not be a huge amount in the first year, but by year three, you will have a fluffy, rich soil that is the envy of gardeners everywhere – and most of the work will be done by critters!
In the Los Angeles Mediterranean climate, we grow a host of vegetables over the winter which makes our winter garden as productive as the summer garden. We can grow broccoli, kale, cabbage, peas, fava beans, Brussels sprouts, carrots, beets, radishes, potatoes, onions, spinach, lettuce, leeks, turnips and parsnips. If you have a negative reaction to these as menu items, may I suggest you try to eat them fresh with an eye towards minimum preparation and get ready to be amazed. For many of us, these winter vegetables suffered the most from diligent over-cooking. For example, most folks don’t really think of beets as sweet, yet up until the time Hawaii was admitted to the United States, most of our sugar came from beets. Try this: boil the beets for just a few minutes to loosen the skin, peel and slice. Sauté the slices in orange juice until tender and don’t be surprised at the requests for seconds.
As fall moves towards winter, this is the preferred time for perennials and California native plants. Perennials include everything from artichokes and asparagus to all the bulbs (freesias, to name a favorite!), roses, fruit trees, and shade trees, all the things that aren’t tropical – hold off on your bananas until spring! Remember, a perennial is any plant that lives for more than one season, so when we say ‘perennial’ we are talking about a wide range of plants. (Yes, I know in Southern California, we plant an awful lot of perennials year round, however, this is the time of year you will find the widest selection and this is also the time of year the plant will like it best.) Look for these plants to show up in nurseries and home improvement stores. For California natives, give Theodore Payne Foundation a call for their annual fall sale date: If you want to grow native, that’s the place to be!
Any fall planting in Southern California must include sweet peas. To have sweet pea flowers for Christmas, they must be in the ground in early September and the weather must cooperate by giving us a warm fall, easing slowly into winter. Otherwise – and this happens frequently – the sweet peas grow with fantastic reserve and lack of enthusiasm and won’t flower until sometime in March, no matter how hard you plead and implore. To grow sweet peas, pour water that has just come from a boil over the seeds and allow them to soak over night. I like to plant them in six packs until they have a few inches of growth before I put them out. Some folks believe their roots are too brittle for transplanting and tell you to sow them in place. My experience shows that snails are much harder on sweet pea seedlings than a transplant. Either way, get them going as soon as you can – and don’t stop there! Sow a few seeds every few weeks until December – the life a of a flowering sweet pea is short and the only way to extend the season is to have plants sown in succession. Once the smell of sweet peas has graced your home, you’ll know why we grow this short lived flower every year!
If you do get them sown in succession, you will have armloads of these sweetly scented flowers and your harvest will last longer than my erstwhile banjo career. Remember that sweet peas (Lathyrus odoratus) are not edible peas – in fact the seed of sweet peas are actually poisonous (not to worry, they taste so bad you wouldn’t eat enough to really kill you). The edible pea, Pisum sativum, is also grown in winter and once you see the difference in plant, flower and seed, you’ll not mistake one for the other!
Now that I’m washed up on banjo, anyone know of an upright bass that needs a loving home?
Grandson of a Great Plains farmer, David King is the Garden Master at the Learning Garden, on the campus of Venice High School. He shares his love of the land and music through teaching, writing and playing in a folk/country band.